Screen Printing Shirts: How They Are Made
Screen printing is one of the most common and popular methods of customization in the printing and clothing industry.
It’s a fairly simple process that’s been around forever. If you’ve never heard of screen printing or silkscreen, it’s basically one of the best and easiest ways to transfer a design onto a shirt or other surface.
That’s the most basic definition of screen printing, and there’s actually a lot more that goes into the process than you may think. There are certainly some technical and scientific terms involved, so we’ll try and keep it as straightforward as we can.
Below, you’ll find everything you need to know about screen printing, including a step-by-step breakdown and the differences between other methods of printing.
What Is Screen Printing?
Screen printing is the process of transferring a design to a surface that typically involves using a stencil, nylon mesh, squeegee, and other tools.
Screen printing uses a chemical process called photo emulsion. This is one of the aforementioned scientific terms that might sound complicated but is actually super simple and can be done by almost anyone with the right tools.
Basically, the created design is used by the stencil, followed by placing it on top of a mesh screen with the fabric underneath. The ink is then added on top while a squeegee is used to pull the ink around the screen which will bleed through onto the desired surface such as a T-shirt.
Custom clothing companies will often utilize this technique on a much larger scale. However, there are multiple different processes that companies will use to print their designs, so it’s important that you don’t get confused.
What’s the Difference Between Screen Printing, Digital Printing, and Embroidery?
These are the three most common types of printing used for shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, pants, and more.
All three have a very different process but are more or less the same in terms of simplicity. When the job is done, all three will offer a different look and feel.
Lighter colors show up better with digital printing. Screen printing gives off a more vibrant look and is more cost-effective for bigger jobs. Embroidery has an entirely different texture and look.
These are only some small examples of some big and noticeable differences. It’s also important to remember that one technique is not worse than the other — they’re used depending on preference, cost-effectiveness, and the design itself.
We’re now familiar with the process of screen printing, so we won’t go too much into the actual step-by-step breakdown — that comes later.
For now, let’s focus on the pros and cons of what you’ll be getting when you screen print designs rather than embroidered or digitally printed ones.
As we said earlier, screen printing will display a much more vibrant look. Because of the hands-on work (screen printing has been used since ancient Egypt), your design will end up with a more personal touch.
Screen printing is also a lot more customizable and versatile. There are so many more options for ink and designs as opposed to a digital print, and it can work on almost any fabric.
The downside is, screen printing works best with designs that have fewer colors. Gradients and complex designs tend to get expensive, so in those cases, we usually recommend digital printing.
Digital printing is, well, exactly what it sounds like.
Instead of tons of ink, hands-on work, and customization, your design will be uploaded to a computer and digitally printed onto the desired fabric, similar to how an office printer works.
Some companies prefer digital printing as the process is undoubtedly faster than screen printing. However, the finished product will (obviously) come out looking like it was digitally printed — something that will be left up to personal preference.
Again, this is not a “bad” technique. It’s faster and gives off a slightly different look, so it all depends on what you’re going for. And as mentioned previously, digital printing is a great technique for very complex and intricate designs as it allows all colors and details to be captured.
Whether you’re familiar with the process of embroidery or not, you’ve at least seen or maybe owned an article of clothing that’s embroidered.
An embroidered logo is something stitched rather than printed, giving it easily the most distinguishable look and feel out of any textile method. It’s best suited for larger and thicker fabrics like something a sweatshirt would be made out of.
Most businesses with uniforms will use embroidery for a small logo typically located on the upper chest of a polo or T-shirt. It gives off a more personal touch since the job won’t be left up to a machine like with digital printing.
A Step-by-Step Process of T-Shirt Screen Printing
To help you understand better, let’s say you want to try screen printing your own T-shirt.
First, you would need a plain, unwrinkled, and dry T-shirt. You would want to lay this flat and avoid washing it directly before screen printing.
Second, you’ll need a black and white design of either a simple logo or letters. After that, you’ll need to print this out with transparency sheets rather than normal printer paper.
Third, you’re going to need to head into a dimly lit room and cover your workstation with something such as a newspaper or tarp to avoid the chemicals being harmed by light.
Now, the photo emulsion process begins. You’ll need emulsion and sensitizer mixed together to create your compound. Be sure to wear gloves and protective glasses at all times if you were to ever attempt this on your own.
Then, grab your silkscreen, elevate it slightly, and pour your mixture onto the screen. You should be making a photo emulsion sandwich — print on top, silkscreen in the middle, and your blank T-shirt on the bottom.
After the emulsion is exposed to light, you’re going to want to spray it with cool water to remove any extra ink and let it air dry.
After about 30 minutes, you should have a custom T-shirt on your hands! If you ever decide to try this, be sure to follow the written instructions step-by-step.
More or less, this is how a manufacturer would do it but on a much larger scale.
Is Screen Printing the Best Method?
As we said before, there really isn’t a “best” method for making your merch.
Your printing choice all depends on the budget and style preference. Screen printing is definitely the most cost-effective route and adds a personal and vibrant touch to any design. Not to mention, it’s the most commonly used printing method.
So, while we technically can’t call it the best, it’s definitely one of the best options for designing whatever it is you’re looking for and our team can help you decide which route to go.
Speaking of that, we’ve talked so much about screen printing but we haven’t actually discussed what can actually be screen printed.
What Can Screen Printing Be Used On?
Screen printing isn’t mutually exclusive to just one item.
Most types of fabric will be able to be screen printed. Here are just a handful of items that are commonly associated with screen printing.
T-shirts are without a doubt the most popular and common item for screen printing. If you own any type of T-shirt with a logo on it, odds are there’s something in your closet that’s been screen printed.
Sports logos, company logos, or just aesthetically pleasing pictures are all common things that you’ll find to be screen printed on T-shirts.
Sweatshirts and Hoodies
Right behind T-shirts are sweatshirts and hoodies.
It’s the same concept — there’s probably a screen-printed hoodie sitting in your dresser as we speak.
Typically, if something is screen printed on a sweatshirt, it’s either a large logo on the back or a much smaller version on the front upper chest.
Other Types of Fabrics and Clothing
Pants, boxers or underwear, and so much more can be screen printed. There are truly unlimited possibilities for what can be customized.
While you can screen print almost any material, it’s best to avoid fabrics that are heat sensitive or shrink easily such as rayon and acetate.
Other than that, you’ll be good to go with just about anything.
KOTN Supply and Screen Printing
At KOTN Supply, we’re ending the era of throwaway merch for good.
Our materials are made from 100% Egyptian cotton and ethically sourced from the Nile Delta.
We utilize the screen printing method like no other, and our products reflect that.
Your project will start as a blank canvas — all it takes is a little imagination and your idea can be brought to life in no time. Shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies, pants, you name it — KOTN has got you covered.
You can get started by checking out our product catalog here.